Dukakis on Feeding the Grass Roots

“I want to begin with an apology to all of you,” began former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis at a special lecture to Professor Paul Wattenberg’s class “Introduction to American Government” on March 1. “If I had beaten Bush I,” he continued, “you would never have had a Bush II.” Laughter ensued.
As the Democratic candidate during the 1988 presidential campaign against Republican George H.W. Bush, Gov. Dukakis has come to be known as a victim of the politics of character assassination. In a country that focuses highly on character assessment, it is not surprising that impersonations, personal attacks and even character appraisal play a large role in presidential campaigns, whether the campaign took place in 1988 or in 2008. In fact, character assessment has become a rallying point that has contributed to the neglect of more logical and educated examinations of policies in favor of exaggerated and sometimes irrelevant traits.
Listening to Dukakis’ address, it was difficult to reconcile his calm demeanor, shadowed by witty sarcasm, with the unemotional Saturday Night Live impersonation given by Jon Lovitz in the 1980s. If anything, his composure accentuated the comic relief.
In 1988, the media, catering to an audience that considered character over qualifications, effectively overshadowed important information with irrelevant references to Dukakis’ policies as governor of Massachusetts. Policies such as his prison furlough program, though highly criticized, was a policy reserved for governorship, and not a policy related to the presidency. In fact, voters rated Dukakis more highly as intelligent, knowledgeable and morally honest than the Republican contender, George Bush.
During his visit, however, Dukakis shed light on a different campaign strategy that he effectively employed in the primaries in order to clinch the Democratic nomination: precinct-based grassroots organization.
Gov. Dukakis’ bid for the Massachusetts governorship in 1974 against incumbent Gov. Francis Sargent, the start of Massachusetts’ longest governorship at 12 years (although not a continuous term), was successful because of the door-to-door campaign.
And with that assertion, he turned to us: “How many of you have done door-to-door campaigning?” A few meager hands stretched into the air. And that is precisely the problem; too few young people are willing to invest in the democratic process.
Although the primaries and caucuses were hailed as generating a dramatic increase in voter turnout, the reality is that the turnout rate among individuals between the ages of 18 and 29, though doubling from 2000, peaked at a mere 17 percent in 2008. The governor urged precinct-based mobilization through the establishment of precinct captains dedicated to motivating and facilitating voting in their election precinct — essentially, an organized form of grass root recruitment.
The governor referred to the recent presidential campaign, noting that President Barack Obama took advantage of grassroots organization, going beyond the red-and-blue state division that has often caused candidates to shy away from states of the opposing political party. “Not only did the Obama campaign begin getting serious about grass-root campaigning,” he said, “but they wisely decided that this red-blue thing was a construct that actually had developed thanks to television companies.”
This ideological division seems to reflect the human tendency to divide and label concepts; ideological divides, however, are not so simple and the party-line division has served to shut off different party potential in favor of preserving the status quo.
In gathering funds, the president was able to convey a strain of legitimacy and transparency by receiving small donations from a vast amount of people, rather than larger sums from a minority. Dukakis originally set the record at 400,000 individual contributors in 1988, a number which grew to 4,000,000 during the Obama campaign.
“I want to see us build on the experience of 2008, which was a very impressive campaign, but it still wasn’t a 50-state campaign,” Dukakis said, contending that further efforts in “red” states could have earned the campaign even wider support.
Listening to an individual lecture on the politics of integration, the involvement of the youth, grass-roots organization and the deception of the red-blue divide, it was difficult not to give Dukakis’ first comment a second thought. These were concepts employed in 1988, and although the governor began with an apology, the success or failure of a presidential campaign often depends on the media, which can influence the population to abdicate their own critical assessment of candidates’ policies for the highly politicized media campaigns. Whether it was calling then-Sen. Obama “arrogant” or vice-presidential contender Sarah Palin “incompetent,” grass-roots engagement has at least helped tip the presidency back into the hands of a majority, and away from generalizations and stereotypes facilitated in the media.

Frida Alim is a third-year political science major. She can be reached at aabdelal@uci.edu.